MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia continues to excel offensively throughout non-conference play.
The Mountaineers, however, have yet to rectify issues defensively that were once again present Sunday.
Tre Mitchell’s personal 8-0 run near the midway point of the second half allowed West Virginia to create separation in what had been a tight contest with Buffalo until that point, and the Mountaineers went on to a 96-78 victory at the WVU Coliseum.
“We didn’t guard the ball screen,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “We worked on it and we did a pretty good job on it in practice. We didn’t do anything close to what we were supposed to do. Some of that is we tried to get some young guys in early and they don’t get as many reps. We didn’t do a very good job. It was frustrating because it’s one of the things we did in every practice.”
With WVU (9-2) ahead 61-60, the Bulls’ Jonnivius Smith was whistled for a foul as Mitchell attempted a shot. Smith was assessed a technical foul for disagreeing with the call and Mitchell made 4-of-4 free throws at the 11:18 mark to up his team’s lead to five.
Mitchell made two jump shots to score the game’s next four points, leaving the Mountaineers with a 69-60 advantage with 8:37 remaining.
“I’m going to give credit to Huggs on that one, because he allowed me to shoot the technical free throws,” Mitchell said. “He let me see the ball go through the basket and it gave me confidence. At 61-60, those were huge free throws. There’s days where we go 50 and 55 in a row without missing one, so what is four?”
Although Buffalo (5-6) got a 3-pointer from Curtis Jones to trail by six, Seth Wilson answered with a triple of his own. Kedrian Johnson then made 1-of-2 free throws and the Mountaineers remained ahead by double digits over the final 7:08 thanks in large part to an offensive outbreak from Jimmy Bell.
Bell scored 17 of his 18 points in the second half, including 12 over the final 6 minutes. Bell had two conventional three-point plays down the stretch, the first of which left the Mountaineers with a 77-63 lead. Bell’s other one came with 3:22 left and made it 90-69, giving WVU its biggest advantage of the game.
In addition to his career-high scoring output, Bell led all players with 10 rebounds.
“It’s my career high so it feels good to go out there and get my first career double-double,” Bell said. “My teammates kept my head high. I didn’t have a great first half. They got my mindset right.”
“Just telling me to keep my head up and be myself,” Bell said. “They know what I’m capable of on the court and I know what I’m capable of on the court.”
Buffalo stuck right with West Virginia for much of the opening half and the contest was knotted at 32 after Kidtrell Blocker scored on a drive to the basket 3:18 before the intermission.
But Erik Stevenson, who scored 16 of his game-high 22 points in the first half, countered with consecutive baskets, and Kobe Johnson’s 3-pointer off a Stevenson assist allowed WVU to lead 39-32 with 2:13 left in the half.
Stevenson’s triple 45 seconds before the break made it 45-36 for the biggest lead either team had in the opening half, and the Mountaineers ultimately settled for a 47-39 advantage at the break.
“These games where you have a week between games, especially around Christmas, your natural tendency is to zone out a little bit,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson connected from long range 2:26 into the second half to make it 54-44, before the Bulls responded with an 11-2 surge over 2:20 of play, closing to within one point when Blocker split two free throws at the 14:10 mark.
A triple from UB’s Isaiah Adams with 12:33 remaining trimmed WVU’s lead to 60-58, and when Zid Powell scored in the paint, the Bulls were behind 61-60 with 11:40 left.
Buffalo, however, went the next 6-plus minutes with only one field goal — Jones’ triple with 8:14 remaining. The Mountaineers displayed a 1-3-1 zone defense for much of that stretch.
“We have to tighten up some things defensively, which we did a better job of in the second half,” Stevenson said.
Mitchell scored 12 of his 17 points after halftime and Seth Wilson added 10 for a fourth double-figure scorer.
Kedrian Johnson and Mohamed Wague added eight points apiece, with Johnson also contributing seven assists and four steals.
Kobe Johnson made all three of his field-goal attempts and scored seven points after being inserted into the starting lineup for Emmitt Matthews Jr., who missed the matchup with a knee injury sustained less than 1 minute into the Mountaineers’ victory over UAB on December 10.
“I don’t think we’d have had near the problems with ball screens if Emmitt was in the game,” Huggins said. “We’re trying to give other guys some time. Kobe deserves some time and Seth deserves time. More time than what they’ve been getting. It was an opportunity to get those guys some playing time and experience. When we switched defenses toward the end of the game, that was really good for them.”
WVU had a 41-30 rebounding advantage and an 18-4 edge in second-chance points, but was outscored in the paint, 38-36.
The Mountaineers also had 14 turnovers.
“We just start throwing it around for some reason,” Huggins said. “We were careless. We have to do a better job. We’re averaging 14 turnovers a game and that’s too many. It’s going to come back and bite us if we don’t start taking better care of the ball.”
Adams led UB with 20 points. Jones and Isaac Jack scored 13 apiece in defeat.
“It was 61-60 and I thought, ‘We just have to keep hanging in every four minutes,” UB coach Jim Whitesell said. “The technical foul really hurt us. It was a lack of discipline. Then we just never got back into the game there at all. They just kind of kept us at bay.”
West Virginia improved to 82-4 over its last 86 home games in December.